January 1, 2013

writing practice

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , at 12:27 pm by Susan


I joined in a conversation with Alice Thompson for a new publication launched last month edited by Katherine Cooper and Emma Short. Here is a short extract from the book about my own approach to writing historical fiction.

I never find it easy to begin writing and am capable of great inventiveness when it comes to displacement activities. The rest of life, emails, even housework, can all seem more urgent and compelling than confronting that opening blank screen. I suspect this fear is more acute for the women of my generation than it is for the men. In my own case this period of not-writing can go on for a worryingly long time. What catapults me out of it is clearing a space in which the only task I give myself is writing, coupled with the realisation that unless I do so the material gathering in my head will evaporate forever.

            I always scribble my first draft as quickly as possible. I don’t care where I start and I also don’t worry if some parts of it come out in note form rather than fully fledged sentences. I think of myself as an explorer: I’m writing to familiarise myself with my characters and discover their stories. Trying to polish phrases as I go is therefore pointless, and slows the process down. In her novel To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf shows the artist Lily Briscoe struggling with a voice in her head which insists ‘women can’t paint’. Speed can be a powerful weapon against these internal censors. At this stage I give myself unlimited freedom and use research only for inspiration, seldom to check facts.

 Once this first draft is done, I put it away for a while before reading it through. Usually it is so rough I don’t even bother correcting it. Instead I draw up a list of what feels alive. My overriding concern is to discover and preserve what the piece is so I can set about writing it. Inevitably, much is pruned. Sometimes I list the elements I now know will comprise my narrative and think about how to order them. This outline can only be provisional because every act of writing introduces new directions and ideas. An important outcome of this first draft is that it will have helped me uncover the ‘voice’ of the piece. With Vanessa and Virginia I allowed myself to be inspired by Woolf’s shimmering, richly allusive prose, but in the novel I’ve just finished the idiom is very different, sparser and more conversational.

Now I have most of the elements I need I can start writing. Although technically this is my second version it still feels like my first, because I open a new document and only occasionally refer back to my original draft. During this stage, I am thinking about the shape and mood of the whole as well as my characters, the way words fall on the page as well as the story. It requires courage and discipline to keep going. I find having deadlines helpful even though they need continual adjustment.

Once this draft is done I am euphoric. Like Lily Briscoe as she finishes her picture, I have the sense some conundrum or tension I was only half aware of has resolved itself. The feeling is short-lived because the reworking that follows is every bit as demanding. I always show a piece to at least one reader before I edit. It reminds me what I have written is no longer my personal affair but must survive the close scrutiny of others. Although I permit myself a great deal of freedom in the early, exploratory stages of writing historical fiction, I am conscious during the editing that I cut or amend anything I know from my research to be beyond the realms of the possible. With Vanessa and Virginia, I removed all but the most minimal alterations to the historical record, and only retained imagined scenarios I felt I could, if required, defend as at the very least highly plausible. This reverence for the past surprises me: it’s not true of all historical novelists, and I never feel constrained in this way if I’m writing a contemporary piece.

Images help me write, and though I work in a tiny office I am surrounded by visual aids. My novel at the moment is set in Paris so I have photographs and pictures of the city up on my walls. [….]


If at all possible, once I have started on a creative piece I write every day. I live with musicians and try to emulate their schedule of regular practice. Writing is like a muscle which gains in strength and flexibility the more it is used. The best way to feed the writing muscle is by incessant reading.

For further details of The Female Figure in Contemporary Historical Fiction, edited by Katherine Cooper and Emma Short, click here


October 1, 2011

How to write historical fiction

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , at 3:36 pm by Susan


This month I wrote an article for a new collection on historical fiction.

Here, ahead of publication, are a few writing tips for those considering the genre.

Do your research

You don’t have to be a trained historian to write a good historical novel, but you do need to know your period well enough to make your readers confident of its veracity.

Work out your ground rules

There are historical novelists who take enormous liberties with what is known, and historical novelists who only invent in the gaps. Anything is permissible under the umbrella of fiction, but remember than creativity is not the same as mangling facts. You might imagine a seventh wife for Henry VIII and win readers, but those same readers will find it hard to trust you if you inadvertently describe him switching on a light.

Never preach

You will undoubtedly discover many fascinating facts about your topic, but only weave these in if your narrative requires them. There is nothing more off-putting than a historical novel which really wants to be a history lesson.

Be specific about your location

While your characters may be fantasies, when and where you locate them should be as realistic as possible. Always choose a specific time and place – Kensington Gardens in 1792 rather than late eighteenth-century London.

Use multiple sources

Sometimes the most valuable research is a picture, or an object in a museum, or visiting the actual location. These can provide important physical details to help bring the world you are creating alive for your readers. The internet is an excellent resource here offering images and virtual tours.

Let go of a contemporary vantage point

Not only must you familiarize yourself with the world you are writing about so it becomes second-nature to imagine your character writing with a quill pen, you must also let go of a twenty-first century mindset. It might be hard now to enter the mind of a slave owner, but if that is your topic you must do so or your portrayal will lack conviction.

Forget the consequences

Your characters do not have a historian’s hindsight so try to take yourself back to the point before the outcome was known. If all those young men had realized in 1914 what awaited them in the trenches, they might have been less eager to sign up.


While you may decide against trying to emulate the language of the past, avoid current trends. ‘Cool’ should only be used to denote temperature!!

Think about fiction

A good historical novel should have all the elements of good fiction, so consider the overall shape and story, the characters and writing as well as historical accuracy.

Different ways to tell your story

Remember stories can be told in flashback as well as chronologically, or from the viewpoint of one or more characters as well as an omniscient narrator.

Find help

Asking someone who knows about your period to go through your finished novel is invaluable. No matter how careful you have been, the chances are you will have got some details wrong.

Prolific reading

As with all good writing, the more you read in your chosen genre the better your work will be.